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EXCERPTS FROM THE INTERVIEW WITH JOHN VOLL
INTERVIEWER: As a scholar of world history could you briefly characterize the world of the 6th and 7th centuries?
JOHN VOLL: The sixth and seventh centuries in the Common Era are a very interesting time for the great empires and major civilizations of the world. Each of the big civilizations was going through a crisis if you will, in terms of large empires declining and political systems being reorganized. This is true of China, of India, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean.
A significant reshaping of religion was also occurring in all these areas. For example in China, you had a rise of Buddhist thinking, and the importance of Buddhism in Chinese religion really dates back to this period. Similarly, in India you had a reorientation of Hindu thought coupled with the decline of Buddhist thought. Across the great civilizations, human societies were undergoing processes of political change and reorientation as well as religious reorientation and rethinking. Naturally, it was also a time of important new religious intellectuals and prophets.
It's into this context that Muhammad fits. His new community created both a new empire and a new religious community.
INTERVIEWER: What about the more local historic context?
JOHN VOLL: At the end of the sixth century and at the beginning of the seventh century in the Middle East, you had two great empires. There was the Persian Empire, and the old eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire. And these two great empires were fighting each other, and had a long series of very bloody wars.
There were also a series of smaller societies on the borders of each of these great empires. In the northern part of the Arabian Peninsula, there were Arab tribes to the west affiliated with the Byzantine Empire, and there were those to the east affiliated and interacting with the Persian Empire. Syrian and the northern edge of the Arabian Peninsula lay in the middle of great international inter-empire, wars, conflicts and conspiracies. On the margin of that, there were small commercial towns in trading centers.
One of those trading centers was the city of Mecca, where Muhammad was born. Mecca's commercial classes were only a few generations away from being nomadic tribesmen, and they were quite naturally in the process then of rethinking their values.
Muhammad fits into this context then. He is the person who brought a message that reoriented the world-view of this small commercial trading center in the Arabian Peninsula. But Mecca wasn't just a small town way off, in nowhere. In fact, it was a town lying between two great empires engaged in a great struggle.
INTERVIEWER: Can you shed some light on Christian and Jewish communities in the region at this time?
JOHN VOLL: In the Arabian peninsula of the sixth and seventh centuries, there were Christian communities, and Jewish communities that have often been ignored by people studying world history. We have a lot of work done on the history of the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Roman Catholic Church, but we hear very little about those Christian communities that were neither directly tied to the Patriarch in Constantinople or to the Pope in Rome. There were, nonetheless, a series of religious communities within the Christian tradition, and most of these both Constantinople and Rome considered heretical.
These communities had their own ritual life, and their own traditions. Many of them had different views about the Trinity or the Doctrine Of Incarnation. Not too far from Mecca where Muhammad grew up, there is the city of Najran, which at the time when he was a young man was a great Christian center. Christians had been martyred there, and their tombs became places for pilgrimage, so that you had Christians coming to a Christian holy site in the Arabian Peninsula on pilgrimage. There were Jewish communities too, particularly in some of the bigger oasis areas like Yathrib, where Muhammad would later settle.
Mecca was neither Jewish nor Christian, although there may have been some Jews and Christians who were associated with Mecca over the centuries. Mecca instead was a city of people still within the broader framework of the tribal and nomadic religions and world-views.
INTERVIEWER: Briefly describe Muhammad's family background.
JOHN VOLL: The family of Muhammad, a couple of generations before him, had been among the major leaders of the community in Mecca. By the time of Muhammad's life, they had lost some of their wealth, but not necessarily their broader prestige, because they had been part of the group of people specially designated to make sure that the shrines in Mecca, especially the Kabah, would be maintained in a proper way. They were the servants then of the Kabah, a part of that group that was specially responsible for maintaining the sanctity of Mecca as a great religious center.
INTERVIEWER: Is there a broader context to Muhammad's message?
JOHN VOLL: One of the most important things to recognize about Muhammad, is that he did not think that he was bringing a new message. In fact the core of his message, was that it was a message that God had presented to many peoples, over many centuries, through many prophets. In this Muhammad was a continuation of a long tradition of prophets who preached that there was but one God who had created the universe. The communities that developed around these teachings became some of the most important religious communities of the Middle East. These are the communities of Judaism, the Zoroastrians, the Christians.
Viewed in a much wider pattern of Middle Eastern religion, you had societies that were nature oriented in their religions, that were polytheistic in their orientation, in their interpretation of the universe, and you had reactions to that orientation. Into that context, probably, as early as 1000 BCE, you had preachers and prophets and teachers who began to argue that this whole complex universe, had in fact one key, one divinity, one power. Ancient Egypt had a great pharaoh by the name of Akhnaton, who is sometimes called the first monotheist. And there were other preachers and teachers who were beginning to present this message, that the ultimate source of power for the universe, and the creator of the universe, was a single divinity: the monotheistic tradition. As we know it now, the best and most visible of these monotheistic traditions was the tradition set in motion by Abraham when he recognized the one God, back in, Ur of the Caldeans. But Abraham was not alone in the monotheistic tradition that he set forward...
In the revelation to the Prophet Muhammad as recorded in the Qur'an, many of the great prophets of the Jewish tradition are listed. The Qur'an also identifies Jesus as an important messenger of God. In addition, there are some distinctive prophets named there who are known only through Arab traditions in the Arabian Peninsula. So then, against this broader background, Muhammad as prophet of the Creator and the one God was part of a continuation of a long-term process of the presentation of God's word to humanity.
INTERVIEWER: do we know what we know about Muhammad?
JOHN VOLL: Scholars often say, that Muhammad is the only major founder of a religious tradition or initiator of a religious tradition who lived in the light of history. Most of the other great teachers in major religious traditions, Jesus, or Buddha, or Confucius, are people about whom we know actually relatively little. Muhammad living in the seventh century was living in a time and a place where historical records, were in fact better kept. Although we do not have great archives such as we have say for George Washington or such people, nonetheless Muhammad did appear in the light of history itself, and within 20 or 30 years of his death, his followers were well known throughout the Mediterranean and Middle Eastern world, and records were kept.
The life of Muhammad, is even in its details publicly better known than any other major religious figure before modern times. His followers made careful efforts to record memories that they had of things that he had said, and things that he had done. They were particularly good at remembering of course, those things that he said when he was asked questions about, what should proper behavior be under certain circumstances. Very early on, these accounts, called Hadiths, or traditions of the Prophet, began to be collected by people.
These collections usually had something to do with particular issues: How should people pray? How should people live? But beyond these topics, there is also a broad awareness of the person whose life is being described. There are hundreds and thousands of these reports about the life of the Prophet that give us a sense of what his followers remembered about his life. Many of these are reports that may have been made up later on, as a part of inspirational sermons and so on. But at the core there seems to me to be little reason to doubt that there is a picture and a portrait of a living man.
Many of the small details, are things that, if one were, preserving a pious picture of a perfect person, you might not preserve. Seemingly unimportant matters, like what was his attitude toward animals? He liked animals apparently. He was a mild person, when faced with some of his followers who were very argumentative. But he was at the same time very persuasive.
The picture presented by Muhammad, in the tradition literature, makes it possible to have a full portrait of a living person, that can then be passed on down through biographical literature. The biography of Muhammad is supported by a variety of documents, reports, and information that give us a lively picture of a human being as he interacted with his followers. These Traditions or reports or Hadiths form the major source for the lifetime of the Prophet. They are related, in a variety of ways, identifying who the source was, so the standard way that a tradition gets reported, for example, is: "I heard from so and so, who heard from, the wife of the Prophet, that when (something) happened the Prophet, responded in this way." These accounts of the life of the Prophet then, provide a picture both of what the Prophet taught as a person and also details of his life.
Within a century after his death, the details of his life as a person were brought together by a scholar named Ibn Ishaq, in a biography, or Seerah, of the Prophet. This is not a theological account. Rather, it is a portrait of the Prophet Muhammad, and describes his life and times. This became a foundation for one of the great traditions of Islamic historical literature: the biographical study of the Prophet, which led in time to biographies of other great leaders and religious figures. In this way, people talk about the core of the faith of Islam as being the Qur'an, and what is called the Sunnah of the Prophet. And Sunnah simply means the lifestyle, the habit, the tradition, the way that the Prophet lived. And so, the core of the faith is the revelation, and the life of the Prophet.